“I’d rather fight than switch,” said no American consumer ever about any brand of solar panels. Or about any big solar installer either.
Not SolarCity. Not SunPower. Not Sungevity. And certainly not Yingli or Hanwha.
That’s a shame for local solar companies that rely on the branding mojo of the big solar companies they represent to reach consumers. It’s even worse for solar sales reps, who count on the value of the brand they’re selling to make the sale.
But if the brand is unknown to solar customers, then those local companies and sales reps might be placing their faith in an expensive fantasy with little value for making sales.
Big Solar Companies’ Wimpy Branding
Coke, Nike, Chevy, Apple, Google. These are brands that the public knows and has opinions about. Sometimes strong opinions.
It happens in the energy industry too. Exxon, BP, Con Edison and PG&E are some of the most recognized — and hated — brands in the energy business. There must be some energy companies that the public loves, but I can’t think of any right now.
And unfortunately, the public doesn’t love or even know most big solar panel companies.
The only opinion you’re likely to hear from the average American consumer about the top home solar contractors is “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Just take some names from the 2016 top residential solar contractors listed by Solar Power World. Once you get past SolarCity, Vivint and Sunnova, it’s a lot of what they call in the entertainment industry “undiscovered talent.”
#4 Trinity Solar. #5 Zia Energy Group. #6 Smart Energy USA.
Outside of Intersolar conferences, nobody’s heard of them.
Brand recognition is even worse for equipment makers. Check out the top three solar PV manufacturers in 2016:
#1 GCL. #2 Trina Solar. #3 JinkoSolar.
They Knew Their Brand Was Weak
Back in 2010 when there was lots of discussion about branding in the solar industry, even SolarCity’s own chief admitted that his company’s brand was little known, according to AOL News:
Consumers currently don’t ask for solar panels made by a particular manufacturers, notes Peter Rive, co-founder and chief operating officer of SolarCity, an installer in California. They rely on their contractors’ recommendations instead. “The panel choice is more like, ‘Don’t pick the ones that suck,'” says Rive. “It’s not like, ‘Pick the ones that I’ve heard of.'”
Are the brands of solar panel makers any stronger today than they were six years ago? The evidence suggests that they’re not.
Just check out reviews for the top solar brands on the Consumer Affairs website, perhaps the most important review site for big solar companies because it comes up #1 in a Google search.
In Consumer Affairs, Vivint is at the top, as you might expect, with 648 reviews. But it’s surprising that a company called Dividend Solar has 389 reviews while SolarCity only has 301.
This is strange. SolarCity spends millions of dollars each year on advertising and promotion and has a massive 237,578 likes on Facebook. Meanwhile, Dividend Solar appears to spend very little on promotion and has only 1,258 likes on Facebook.
Yet, Dividend outranks SolarCity on Consumer Affairs reviews. Does SolarCity know how important reviews are to build a brand? Do they even bother to encourage their (satisfied) customers to put more reviews on the top ranking review site on Google?
They Think Their Brand is Awesome
It’s clear that SunPower doesn’t care much about reviews on Consumer Affairs either.
The company has a pitiful 66 reviews on the site, lagging behind Complete Solar, which is hardly a household name, with 179 reviews.
This is also odd, because like SolarCity, SunPower clearly does care about its branding.
The most obvious evidence of how much they promote their own brand is that the company either encourages or requires their local dealers to use the SunPower name in the dealers’ own names.
This leads to some pretty awkward names for solar companies around the US:
- SunPower® by Infinity Solar in New York
- SunPower® by Quality Home Services in California
- SunPower by Positive Energy Solar in New Mexico
- SunPower by Renewable Energy Electric in Arizona
If you’re looking for a tongue-twister, try saying any of these names ten times fast.
SunPower has somehow convinced some of its dealers that it’s worth putting up with an awkward name for their own company in order to benefit from being associated with the SunPower brand. But is it?
I recently talked to a young man in a western state who’s a 100% commission sales associate for a local installer that, he explained, is a “SunPower Master Dealer.”
As a marketing guy, my ears perked up. That “Master Dealer” part sounded like a branding thing.
So I Googled it. And indeed, just as Pokémon Go has 40 levels to entice players to get more invested in the game, so SunPower offers not two, not three, but a generous four levels of certified local dealer in home solar. These levels range from Authorized Dealer at the bottom through Premier and Elite dealers in the middle to Master Dealer at the top.
This is just more evidence that the company must believe that its brand is extremely valuable, at least to its dealers. No local dealer will bother to jump through all of SunPower’s hoops to make it up to the next level unless the dealer believes that there’s some branding benefit to getting the more prestigious badge.
Solar is Still A Commodity
A commodity is something like flour, sugar or gasoline that consumers buy only on price. They assume that the quality is about equal across brands and they really don’t care where they get it as long as they get the cheapest. This of course tends to drive down prices for any product that has become a commodity, as industry analysts warn could happen with solar panels too.
It’s arguable whether the brand of any big solar company makes it any easier for outside sales associates to sell solar to homeowners.
If consumer recognition of big solar company brands is still at essentially zero in most parts of the US, then saying that you represent SunPower, SolarCity or any other big solar company may not open any doors outside of the very hottest solar markets.
(Ironically, solar-oriented battery makers might be the exception. Everybody seems to have heard of Tesla’s Powerwall. Meantime, premium German battery maker Sonnen has come out of nowhere to give Tesla a run for its money in the minds of US consumers.)
It might help sales reps connect with homeowners in San Francisco or Long Island to boast that you distribute such-and-such brand of PV panels. But name dropping a big solar company may not help sell much solar in other areas.
The Value of a Personal Brand
That’s why solar sales associates might be safer building their own brand. What that means is that, if you sell solar, you may not want to rely on the big company’s name alone to give you credibility.
Instead, you’ll get more leverage if you establish your own reputation for the things that a brand is supposed to convey to solar buyers:
It will be especially valuable for sales reps to establish their own brand if they plan to move on from the big solar company they represent now to a different one in the future. And most sales associates I’ve spoken to plan to do just that at some point, whether in six months or a couple years.
Building your own brand as a sales rep puts you in the power position as an entrepreneur instead of leaving you at the mercy of a big solar company that may or may not do a good job of building its brand to create demand among your potential customers.
In the bad old days, companies had to spend lots of money on ads to build a strong brand.
Today in the Age of the Internet, it’s not that hard for even a lone solar sales rep to build his own brand locally. But like anything worth having in business, building a reputation in your own name with solar buyers in your area takes work and it takes time.
The sooner a solar sales rep gets started building his own brand, the sooner he can reap the rewards in terms of more leads and more sales, whatever big company he’s connected with today or tomorrow.
The easiest way to build your own brand today is to start with your own website.
- Individual sales reps should insist that the company they rep provides them with adequate digital marketing support. That means starting with a mini-website hosted by the company that the sales rep can use to connect with solar buyers online.
- Startup solar companies should build their own website. Here are three ways for a startup solar company to get a website no matter what the company’s marketing budget.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group